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Act: Astrobatics [by Kraisoft]

Game: Astrobatics
Release: November 12, 2003
Genre: Action
Developer: Kraisoft
System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz CPU, 64 Mb RAM, 8 Mb video RAM, DirextX 8.0
Price: $19.95

Side-scrolling shooters are very difficult to create in today's gaming world.  Many people consider this type of game to have peaked in the late 80's with the release of R-Type, and I am a part of that crowd.  When it comes to indie games, the option is to either rehash ground that has already been covered and will likely sell well to a market that feels comfortable with the game's concept, or to try to make something completely new (ala Alien Flux), that will be new to gamers and may not create a strong market.  In the case of Kraisoft, the amazing developer from Europe, they went with the first option.  This is a difficult option to pick, but they pulled it off fairly well.

As mentioned before R-Type is one of the major measuring sticks for all shooters.  If I were to include top-scrolling shooters, we could also include games like Dragon Spirit and Raiden as games that have made major impacts on the industry.  While shooters were in their heyday in the 80's and early 90's there were shooters coming out so fast that it was nearly impossible to keep track of them all, let alone play them all.  However some quickly rose to the top.  In the case of R-Type, the game presented something that hasn't been done really very well since.  In that game, winning the game was NOT predicated on surviving as a super-powered-up ship.  I'll explain...

In most shooters, as you progress you gain more and more firepower through the collection of multiple weapons, super weapons, and power-ups to your own weapon.  Many of these games expect that you will not ever die.  If you do, your game will be over as there is no way for you to compete on the screen without all the weapons.  In the best shooters, your ship is capable of beating every level the way that it is equipped when it starts the game.  Of course it is VERY difficult to do so, but certainly possible. 

R-Type accomplished this by giving the player a front or rear positional shield, and a super laser that could be powered up.  Kraisoft has followed suite with their new game.  In Astrobatics, a cleverly-named game that combines the words Astro for space and acrobatics for the movement required to survive, you control a single star ship.  Your ship has a very weak laser that does not fire the length of the screen.  However, the ship also includes a laser that when powered up will fire the full length of the screen, and will pierce right through most enemies.  In this way the ship is much like the ship in my favorite classics, as it appears to have been made self-sufficient for playing any level of the game.  Kraisoft went a step further by making it so that every level you start with no extra weapons at all.  If you manage to pass a previous level with missiles, powered up guns and turrets, they will all disappear as you begin the next level.

Between the powerful laser on the ship and the resetting the ship back to its initial state to begin each level, Kraisoft has made some solid movements in making sure that the game doesn't become overly based on acquiring high-level weapons.  However in this case it was not enough.  The reason I've spent almost this entire review laying out this issue is because I believe it is so important.  In Astrobatics, if you either a) get a bad start to the level, or b) die during the level, you are nearly assuredly going to fail to pass the level.

Astrobatics is a really solid game aside from this one point.  The graphics are quite nice, and the sound is among some of the best available in a space shooter.  The strength to any shooter has always been the power-ups available to the ship, and Astrobatics has done a good job in creating its own spin on things.  The basic ship can be powered up with spread shots and turrets.  Perhaps an interesting point is that you cannot change your main weapon as you do in many shooters.  However, Astrobatics is so intense, and the weapons are so solid that you likely won't even notice that fact.  The main weapon on its own is not adequate to get you very far into any level, so you'll find yourself powering up the laser very often in the early going to try and get some better weapons.  The spread fire helps tremendously as does the rear cannon.  Each level of the game has a good series of enemies that will approach you from behind, and having the rear cannon can really help with dispatching them.

My personal favorite of the main weapons was the missile turrets.  If you manage to keep your main turret in one piece throughout any level, you should get an upgrade to a missile turret.  These are extremely important in the game.  The normal cannon turrets fire the same type of laser as your ship does.  That means that it only extends half the length of the screen.  If you are sitting at the far left side of the screen, your lasers will not be hitting enough enemies at the far right side of the screen to keep you alive very long.  Playing in the middle helps, but being as this is a shooter, you will be dodging bullets everywhere to stay alive, and having a missile, that does extend the full length of the screen is very helpful. 

There are also a series of secondary weapons.  Mines is the first that you will get, and they come in great number.  They are of course also very in-effective.  You can leave them at any point on the screen, and if you are moving when you release them, they will take your inertia with them as they are released, which can be helpful if done properly.  There are several other secondary weapons including heavy lasers, homing missiles, and a heavy duty shield.  However, my favorite of the lot was the airstrike, which calls in a large number of other ships from your fleet who attack everything on the screen.  (my only question is where were those guys the rest of the time?  Of taking a break?  Sleeping in?  Getting donuts?  I mean come on, I'm taking on thousands of enemies by myself!)

Astrobatics certainly lives up to its name in many ways.  The bullets fly all over the screen, and require a very steady hand in order for you to maneuver around them.  There were many times that I expected to see my ship bend as I tried to get it around a series of enemy shells headed for me.  Overall the game does a good job of being an above average shooter, and I'm sure that most shooter fans will enjoy this one as one of the best shooters to come out in recent years.

Graphics: 9
I've never said a bad word about the graphics in any Kraisoft game.  They are quite frankly wonderful.  All of the enemy ships are very well drawn on the screen, and the variety of enemies is simply amazing.  Though the levels do not have a lot of variety in them, the graphics on each is extremely well detailed.  The special effects on each of the weapons is also nice, though the lack of 3D effects is duly noted.  Shooters are a genre where graphics are king, and the wicked explosions and amazing coolness of your weapons drives you on to play the game more.  Astrobatics certainly delivers with extremely high-quality graphics.

Sound: 9
The first time I was playing through the game I was on my laptop and didn't have the sound on very loud.  However, once I got to level 6, I picked up enough of the tunes in the background to realize I was missing out by not turning the music up.  The sound-tracks on this game are fantastic.  As is the case with any game, some are better done than others, but I was amazed at how many sound-tracks are included and the quality of each.  They all have a darker feeling of despair to them than some games.  You will feel as though you are in a fight of impossible odds just by listening to the music.  The sound effects are all top-notch as well.  Astrobatics has some of the best sound that I've heard recently.

Game Play: 9
I have to admit that I find playing a shooter with a mouse to be much better than with the old joysticks that we used in the arcades.  Computers and analog joysticks have given much more control over the space craft that you use.  The mouse control default in Astrobatics suited me perfectly.  The mouse moves the ship precisely, after you learn how your ship's inertia will affect your movement.  I really appreciated inertia being considered into things as far too many games seem content to let the ship move any direction at any time, which looks very awkward and unreal to my eyes.

Options: 9
Not much needed here.  I would have loved to have a 2-player simultaneous option, though it certainly wasn't necessary.  Online high-score lists have become standard affair, and Astrobatics delivered there as well.  There was not an included level designer like we saw in Ultra Assault last year, which is kind of disappointing, though Kraisoft has been known to create a free add-on or two in the past.

Concept: 7
The game doesn't really cover any new ground.  The mines were nice, but Astrobatics spent more time trying to perfect old concepts than it did trying to create new ones.  I didn't feel it perfected the old concepts as well as it might have (as noted in the review), so I docked it a few points here.

Fun: 7
This was a tough category to rate the game in.  Astrobatics ranges from moments where you love the game to moments where you hate it.  I quickly found that if I started a level badly, the best thing to do was to just start over.  That being said, the more that you play the game and become familiar with the boards the better you will be at playing.  Initially when playing the first couple of levels of the game I had nothing good to say about it.  However, the more I played, the more I enjoyed it.  Much like the games of old, this isn't a game that you will begin playing and be perfect at from your first try.  You will have to play a good while before you start getting down how to play.  After that, you will have to be familiar with how enemies appear on many of the board sets in order to get past them.  The main problem, as noted earlier, is that if you die during any of the later levels, you are pretty much toast.  You won't be able to pick up weapons fast enough to keep yourself alive as your ship doesn't have a strong enough weapon to kill anyone, and EVERYONE is trying to shoot you, ram you and otherwise discombobulate your vessel.  When you are powered up and all powerful, the game is an absolute blast.  The difficulty level I think will frustrate some players, and the casual gamer may find his time and money better spent elsewhere.

Overall: 9
Astrobatics packs in 15 levels of mayhem for quite a low price.  My personal guess is that the game will keep you playing for many hours to try and pick your way through each level.  Shooter fans who are itching for the latest challenge should immediately check this game out.  The graphics are brilliant and the sound is wonderful.  The ship control works really well, and the more that you play the game, the more that you'll enjoy it.  Kraisoft has become known for good games over the years, games that showcase some of the best that Independent games has to offer, and this is another case of a fantastic game that you'll only find online.

Added: January 13th 2004
Reviewer: Russell Carroll
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